Last year, after New York officials announced a plan to dispatch 500 additional police officers to the city’s subway system, a coalition of activist groups organized a series of protests. On January 31, they held a “day of transit action” that saw small demonstrations pop up at stations and on trains across the city. “Fuck your $2.75,” a flyer promoting the event read, referring to the cost of a subway ride. “Public transit should be free,” read another, “which means free fares, free of policing, free of accessibility barriers, free to sell churros, free to dance, free to sleep.”
The flyers, along with other protest-related literature on topics like what to do if arrested, ultimately made their way into instructional materials used by the New York Police Department’s Police Academy, the six-month training all aspiring cops go through at the beginning of their career. The protest literature — “propaganda,” as the NYPD referred to it — was included in a Police Academy student guide on civil disorder and came with a warning: “The FTP (F**k the Police) group, also known as ‘Decolonize this place’ and ‘shutitdown,’ considers themselves an activist group that claims to fight for the rights of the poor and ‘indigenous people,’” the guide noted, mischaracterizing what is actually a loose formation of several groups that shared the materials. “This group has been responsible for vandalizing NYPD vehicles and property, entering the transit system without paying, and additional illegal destructive behavior.”
The NYPD student guide on civil disorder was part of a cache of internal documents obtained by The Intercept in response to a public records request for protest-related police training materials. The documents, which we are publishing with this story, also include instructor and student guides as well as class slides and quizzes on the topics of officer discretion, maintaining public order, and custodial offenses, which include resisting arrest and obstructing governmental administration, two of the most frequent protest-related charges.
An organizer who is involved with Decolonize This Place told The Intercept he was not surprised to learn that the NYPD’s training included literature by the FTP formation, which can stand for “Feed the People” and “Fight the Power,” in addition to “Fuck the Police.” “There’s a long history of the police or the police state or the intelligence trying to understand the way others do stuff,” said the organizer, who asked for anonymity for fear of being targeted by the NYPD and right-wing media. “What we’ve put out, we think of it as public knowledge that is not readily available for people, to protect privacy and to keep people safe. That it’s perceived as threatening … I don’t know what to say about it.”
No part of the academy’s basic curriculum is specifically dedicated to the policing of protest, even as officers are frequently deployed to do so, leading to frequent abuses and fierce backlash against the department. Instead, lessons about other aspects of the job, like how to take an uncooperative person into custody, include nebulous protest-related tidbits, such as advice on balancing the NYPD’s position as guardian of “public order” and its stated commitment to safeguarding constitutional rights. “It is important in our democratic society that the rights of assembly and the freedom to peaceably protest be protected,” officers are taught, according to the documents obtained by The Intercept. “At the same time, these rights cannot be used as an excuse for violence nor may the exercise of those rights unnecessarily interfere with other important rights, such as those of non-demonstrators.”
The NYPD, the training materials claim, “has a tradition of restraint and great success in handling the most sensitive demonstrations with respect for the rights of both demonstrators and the general public. Time and again, we have earned our reputation as the finest police department for handling demonstrations.”
Together, the documents offer an overview of the NYPD’s protest-related training that is striking for its vagueness and the lack of practical guidance to back the department’s declared commitment to the rights of protesters. “The key to quelling a civil disturbance without a need for force is the threat of force, coupled with tight discipline and control,” one of the documents reads. “A well-disciplined, well-armed unit creates the impression of a powerful, competent police force. Usually, a large, overpowering police presence will stop rioters in their tracks. If force must be used, remember to use only the minimum amount necessary to control the situation.”
Corey Stoughton, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society, which together with the New York Civil Liberties Union has sued the city over the police’s violent response to last year’s George Floyd protests, said the training on protesters’ constitutional rights is practically meaningless. “We’re talking about a maximum 45-minute discussion session on how to protect people’s First Amendment rights at protests,” she said. “The tools you walk out of that training room with, as an officer, are all geared towards finding ways to justify the arrest of protesters, rather than finding practical ways to facilitate peaceful protests and the exercise of free speech rights.”
Stoughton, who reviewed the documents obtained by The Intercept, noted that while they contain “rhetorical commitments” to protesters’ rights, they focus almost exclusively on ways police can limit them: “The only practical information you would leave a training like that with is, ‘How can I arrest protesters?’”
John Miller, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for public information, wrote in an email to The Intercept that the NYPD handles five to 10 protests daily, the vast majority without incident. “Policing a peaceful protest requires very little specialized training,” he wrote, adding that the more complex aspects of the training have to do with disorder control. “Finding the right balance in policing protests does not come with certain or obvious answers, it is an ongoing process.”
“Failure to Train”
In the aftermath of the police brutality displayed during last summer’s uprising, a series of official reports denounced the department’s failure to adequately train officers ahead of the protests. Most cops had not received protest-related training since leaving the academy years or even decades earlier. The reviews drew a distinction between the Strategic Response Group, a heavily militarized, rapid-response unit that has an estimated 700 members and receives specialized training, and the rest of the NYPD’s 35,000 uniformed officers.
In a 115-page report, the Department of Investigation, an independent agency overseeing city government, concluded that “other than for personnel assigned to SRG, DOI found that, prior to the Floyd protests, NYPD lacked standardized, agencywide, in-service training related to policing protests.” The DOI added, “NYPD appears to have deployed a large number of front-line supervisors and officers to police the Floyd protests without adequate training.” The conclusion was echoed by the city’s law department, the Office of the Corporation Counsel, which wrote in its own report that “for a majority of the officers who were assigned to the George Floyd protests, their training on policing protests was limited to what they had received as recruits in the Academy.”
When criticized for using force against protesters last summer, the NYPD responded in part by noting that hundreds of its officers were injured in the course of doing their job. Miller, the deputy commissioner for public information, repeated that claim in his statement to The Intercept. “Police officers who received basic training in handling peaceful protests were challenged by situations in which protests often shifted from orderly to disorderly,” he wrote. “While they tried to make arrests of only individuals for specific acts of violence or property damage they often found themselves struggling with groups of people trying to ‘de-arrest’ those individuals.”
Miller also noted that only 69 of the 976 complaints made against individual officers last June and July named SRG officers, which he suggested “may be due to the advanced training SRG officers receive in team tactics for arrests that are specifically geared to reduce injuries to those being arrested and to the police officers arresting them.” Yet the SRG was heavily involved in some of the most brutal repression of protests in the wake of Floyd’s killing last summer, including the violent arrests of at least 263 people police had trapped in the streets at a June 4 protest in the Bronx. Last month, The Intercept published a series of SRG training documents that reflect the unit’s heavy-handed approach to the policing of protest: coaching cops on tactical maneuvers and mass arrest scenarios, as well as providing additional training for SRG’s distinctive armor-clad bike squads.
Facing backlash over its handling of the protests, last summer the NYPD expanded the training it gives all officers on the force. The new training includes subjects like the “the Mobile Field Force, crowd management versus crowd control, crowd psychology, protester roles and tactics, the Handschu agreement” — a consent decree prohibiting the NYPD from engaging in purely political surveillance — “formations, flex-cuffing, mass arrests and team carries,” according to NYPD spokesperson Sgt. Edward D. Riley.
The DOI noted that while it was “unable to conduct a full assessment of the new training,” it determined that much of it appeared to consist of “disorder control” tactics like those deployed by the SRG. (The topics identified by Riley also appear in the SRG’s training materials.) The new training has “limited emphasis on de-escalation and effective communication with protest participants in an attempt to maintain peace and order,” the agency concluded. “That scenario-based training appears focused solely or primarily on crowd control tactics and formations with no discernable reference to managing interactions, facilitating First Amendment rights, and minimizing the use of force.”
Asked whether the new departmentwide training was modeled after the SRG’s, Miller, the deputy commissioner, told The Intercept that it followed the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Center for Domestic Preparedness curriculum and includes “protecting and facilitating demonstrations as well as training in the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution regarding the right to protest and equal protection under the law.”
Still, critics of the NYPD’s response to protests are warning against calls for more training that they fear will result in the entire department getting schooled in the ways of its most militarized unit. “One of the open questions is: Is the new training a distillation of the SRG training?” said Stoughton, the Legal Aid attorney. “In which case, what’s the basis for thinking that that’s going to change anything about the NYPD’s response to protests?”
There has been little research on the effectiveness of police training, yet calls for more training regularly follow high-profile instances of police abuse. Critics say this response only directs more resources to police departments while failing to tackle the underlying cultural issues at stake.
“It’s a stopgap cosmetic measure that costs more money,” Joo-Hyun Kang, director of Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition of community organizations, told The Intercept. “Really, the way that we reduce this level of violence is we have to reduce significantly the bloated budget, the outsized power, the scope, the size, and the footprint of the NYPD.”
Grappling With History
The instruction materials obtained by The Intercept offer a glimpse into the way the NYPD conceives of its role and history in relation to protest.
“One of the major reasons that New York City is so frequently selected as the site for National Conventions is this Department’s reputation for handling demonstrations by communicating with all parties,” the materials note. “This has been a dramatic change from the practices of some other police departments, which have emphasized the deployment of SWAT teams and aggressive crowd control techniques.”
The documents credit such success to the 1994 establishment of the Disorder Control Unit, or DCU, the precursor to the SRG, and claim that since its establishment, “New York City has not been the victim of any large-scale civil disorder.” That telling fails to mention that the DCU was central to some of the most brutal repression of protest in city history, including the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests and the 2004 Republican National Convention, where large-scale police abuses led to a historic $18 million in legal settlements.
“There’s really no question that part of what played into the violent response to the protests this summer was the NYPD’s failure to absorb lessons from litigation and complaints that emerged from its response to prior incidents,” said Stoughton. “What the summer made clear was that the NYPD has not fully grappled with that history.”
As documents obtained by attorneys over the years reveal, little has changed about the NYPD’s protest-related training despite countless lawsuits and court rulings critical of its conduct. In a class–action lawsuit seeking to represent hundreds of protesters arrested last summer, attorneys argued that the NYPD failed to train its officers about how to protect First Amendment activity since at least the 1990s, when the DCU was created. “Despite the wealth of evidence of NYPD members’ historical brutality against protesters, [the city] has ignored, and/or failed to utilize, relevant information, including information gleaned from reports and lawsuits, as well as other data points, to identify deficiencies in NYPD training as it relates to constitutionally compliant protest policing.”
While none of that recent history features into the NYPD’s training documents, the materials do refer to the police’s position, historically, as the target of protests they are tasked with controlling. “In fact, most of the riots in this country over the last half-century have been started by what, justifiable or not, were believed by citizens to have been abuses of police discretion,” the documents note. “It is sobering to reflect on all the damage that has been caused by controversial decisions made by police officers on the street.”
The documents briefly acknowledge law enforcement’s role in stirring or exacerbating major instances of civil unrest in the early 1990s, like the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles and the unrest in New York City’s Crown Heights neighborhood. They also note that, in the 1960s, “police had become the source of great controversy” and remark on how, following the civil rights movement, “suddenly, government commissions and scholars found the police very interesting.” The training materials say “in recent years, some of the most serious allegations of police discretion have been claims that it has been abused, and degenerated into racial profiling.”
The documents warn officers that “demonstrators feel strongly about their cause” and call on them to “recognize this intensity, treat it objectively and professionally, and not allow ourselves to be ‘hooked’ into the emotion of the moment.”
Even when protesters’ criticism is directed at police themselves and “takes the form of chanted curse words and personal insults,” the documents encourage officers not to “lose control and overreact to the verbal abuse.” The documents say, “Regardless of your personal feelings towards the demonstrators or the object of their protest, you must remain neutral. A lack of professionalism or the use of unnecessary force against civilians damages the relationship between the Department and the community, as well as the Department’s image.”
“Do As You Are Told”
While police officers generally have broad discretion to decide how to address a situation, the documents emphasize that such individual discretion can be taken away during protests. “At some demonstrations, you may be directed to follow orders scrupulously and to exercise no individual discretion whatsoever,” one module notes. “Do as you are told.”
That exception to the rule also appears in the SRG training documents published by The Intercept, making clear that protest-related decisions during the Floyd protests — like ones to surround protesters in a controversial maneuver known as “kettling,” or to make mass arrests — were not made by individual officers. The resulting violence, the documents suggest, was not a matter of lone cops going rogue but policy deliberately sanctioned by department leadership.
“Before every demonstration, the Department’s operational and intelligence experts try to find out everything possible about the demonstrators and their cause, and how they intend to get their point across,” the documents state. “Based on this analysis, the Department develops a very precise strategy for policing the demonstration. At times, this may require that every officer play a specific and defined role, as part of a highly coordinated team effort that allows for no variance.”
The training materials make repeated references to court rulings in favor of protesters’ right to assemble and warn that “attempts to regulate activities that are classified as pure speech have failed constitutional muster.” These statements, however, are invariably followed by examples of things police can do, within the bounds of the law, to restrict protests. “The fact that conduct may be permitted under the First Amendment does not mean that the government cannot regulate that conduct in some way if the overwhelming needs of the rest of society require it,” the documents note, citing “traffic congestion, pedestrian congestion and inconvenience to others” as justification for intervention.
The documents then elaborate on how officers can arrest protesters in a legally defensible way. “The general policy of the New York City Police Department is to warn non-violent demonstrators before making arrests,” the training notes. “Otherwise, an immediate arrest will be viewed as an attempt to interfere with the rights of the protesters.”
That kind of approach — implying that constitutional rights should only be protected enough to avoid legal repercussions — are indicative of an underlying antagonism by police toward protesters that no amount of training can fix, critics have long maintained. A better solution to avoid violent repression of protest, they add, is considering whether police need to be there in the first place.
“Why are there so many police at protests? Do we even need police at protests?” asked Kang, of Communities United for Police Reform, adding that, at best, police at protests handle traffic control that can easily be left to civilians, and at worst, they escalate tensions and infringe on protesters’ rights. “There’s a much bigger question of, what’s their role, and should police even have a role?”